I stepped outside at a quarter past five o’clock to gauge the quality of the skies. Clear, but not as clear as yesterday’s crisp clean views of Venus, Jupiter, Orion and the waning Moon. Not that I complained. I keep the camera and tripod close to the front door so it’s just a matter of a minute or two before I can snap a couple of photos to share.
Both of these photos taken between 5:25 and 5:30 a.m. this morning, so here’s a star chart to help you identify the planets, stars and constellations from my location at that time looking east-southeast.
Tomorrow morning, the waning moon catches up to Venus in Cancer and as an extra treat, I plan to search for M44, the Beehive Cluster, found in the chest of that Crab constellation. This open cluster is visible to the naked eye and even more so to binoculars. Perhaps my camera, with the telephoto lens mounted, won’t be too shabby either.
I left work Friday afternoon in a pouring rain. Nothing unusual in the grand scheme of things. It is late March and Spring had sprung this week, which usually brings rain. An entire week of rain, in fact. I had hoped, against all evidence to the contrary, that the rain would let up earlier in the day on Friday. I resigned myself to retrieving my vanpool riders and slogging through rain drenched traffic for the next hour. I wanted to participate in my astronomy club‘s Messier Marathon, but just didn’t think the effort would equal the returns. I would have to pack up all of my astronomical observing equipment (telescope, tripod, eyepieces, control device, cables, portable battery, sky charts, observing aids, red flashlight, chair, some kind of table, etc) and then drive over an hour to the dark sky site way south near Butler, Missouri. Early indications from other club members reported the dark sky site field was very wet and since I don’t own a four-wheel drive truck or SUV, I decided to stay in Lansing.
I had permission from my city council representative to contact the Chief of Police to make arrangements to use one of the city parks after dark. I hesitated to bother the police. That is a huge hassle to overcome, for me anyway. And I still needed to re-train my telescope’s Alt/Az drives before packing them up, since that process requires daylight and a terrestrial object to focus upon. Clouds still scudded across the sky while I set the telescope up outside on the lower back patio. I trained the drives for five or ten minutes and then powered down the telescope until later in the evening.
After watching a couple of episodes of Jeopardy and squeezing in my exercise routine (and making my legs wobbly and rubbery by trying a longer version of one of the higher intensity activities), I slipped back outside to see how many stars were visible at just a few minutes past eight o’clock. I spied the small sliver of a new crescent moon hovering just over my neighbor’s roof so I grabbed my camera (already on it’s tripod) and took a few photos (two of which I am including in this post). I even got Terry outside long enough to witness the new moon and point out how much higher Venus has gotten over Jupiter in a week since the last time I photographed the pair of them.
By the time I finished snapping a few photographs, I had enough bright stars to attempt an alignment of the telescope with my newly retrained drives. The Autostar easy alignment selected Sirius in Canis Major as the first star in the alignment process. After I found and centered the Dog Star, the next stop on the alignment workflow became Capella in the constellation Auriga, another easily spotted star in the evening sky. The Autostar reported a successful alignment so now for the first real test of the retrained drives. I instructed the device to find Jupiter. Surprise! The telescope found Jupiter on the first try! I did have to recenter Jupiter and it’s four glorious moons in the eyepiece, but I did not have to use either of my finder scopes. I inserted a 2x barlowe and a 26mm eyepiece and could clearly see the cloud striations on Jupiter. I could even see a hint of color. I again pulled Terry out to the telescope to take a look at the gas giant and its beautiful alignment of moons.
Next stop on my pre-Messier tour became Venus. Again the Autostar found our sister planet successfully. I only had to re-center the very bright planet in my eyepiece. I should have put a filter on the eyepiece, because even at only half-full, Venus almost hurt my eyes to look at. I felt confident enough in the telescopes alignment and the retrained drives to begin my mini-Messier Marathon.
My Messier Marathon Observer’s Form lists the objects in a ‘best viewed in this order’ arrangement. I knew I would not be able to observe the first two items on the list, due to the nature of my site. My house rests in a valley, behind a large hill to my west. In addition, I have several tall trees in my backyard, as do my neighbors to the west and north. Thanks to the highway just a couple of blocks to my west, I have ample ambiance (aka light pollution) and nearly all my neighbors must be afraid of the dark because they insist on illuminating nearly all exterior surfaces of their residences. Still, I told the Autostar to go find M77, a spiral galaxy also known as Cetus A. Unfortunately, the telescope came to rest pointing northwest, through at least three trees. I moved on to the next item, M74, another spiral galaxy in the constellation Pisces. But again, I saw only trees. A shame, really, as I would love to see that beautiful spiral galaxy (shown in photo above and to the left).
The next three stops on the observation list also happened to be galaxies, including the famous Andromeda galaxy, designated as M31 on the Messier list of objects. Since the telescope did not move appreciable away from the area of M77 and M74, I again couldn’t see the stars for the forest. Yet another galaxy I desperately want to observe, so to ease the pain of defeat, I’ll provide another image of that marvelous gem. The image above and to the right also includes M32, one of the other two galaxies I couldn’t observe.
I began using my Sky & Telescope Pocket Sky Atlas to assist me in locating Messier objects that I could actually view in my limited sky scape. The Pocket Sky Atlas‘s last pages contains an index of Messier objects and the star chart they appear on. I skimmed through the list of the next few objects and determined that M45 could be seen with the naked eyes. The Pleiades is an open star cluster. I still told the telescope to go find it and spent a few minutes marveling at the cluster of bright stars peering back at me through the eyepiece. Finally, I got to check off one of the 110 objects on my Messier Marathon Observer’s Form, writing 8:42 p.m. in the blank provided.
The next two objects I found easily included M42 and M43, both found in Orion’s sword and more commonly known as the Great Orion Nebulae and De Marian’s Nebula (really part of the other one or an extension of it). I wrote 9:07 p.m. in the blanks on my form.
I spent the next thirty to forty minutes trying to track down several objects I should have been able to find since they were south or directly overhead. I could not find the Crab Nebula (M1) and began to suspect I had messed up the alignment on the telescope. I had nudged a tripod leg more than once, so I reverted the Autostar to star mode and went searching for Rigel, Betelgeuse, Sirius and Capella again to retune the alignment. After that, I was successful in viewing several star clusters, including M44 (aka the Beehive Cluster), M48 and M50 (between 9:45 and 9:51 p.m.).
I got even more excited when I spied M95 on the list just two below M44. This spiral galaxy gained fame this past week by spouting a supernova. My earlier research also showed that Mars was just a few degrees away from M95. So I took a few minutes to realign the telescope and enjoy the ruddy beauty of the fourth planet in our solar system. Then I went on the hunt for M95. I spent many frustrating minutes attempting to find the elusive spiral galaxy but to no avail. The skies above Lansing are just not dark enough for my small telescope. It can’t gather enough light and my aging eyes can’t ever seem to get acclimated to the annoying and obscuring local ground illumination to spot such a faint (9.7 in magnitude) object. By a quarter after ten, I decided enough was enough.
And, for some unknown reason, the telescope had twice decided to go off on a tangent, causing the altitude drive to run off for no reason and would not stop when I entered commands into the Autostar. Hmmm. There must be a bug in the latest firmware I downloaded last week. I should probably hook the laptop up to it today and see if a ‘fix’ has been made available from Meade.
I enjoyed my mini-marathon of Messier objects and learned quite a bit about my abilities and the capabilities of my amateur astronomy equipment. Tonight I will attend the monthly meeting of the Astronomical Society of Kansas City and tomorrow I will probably head south to Powell Observatory for a training session on the club’s large telescope. By Monday, I should have purged my system of all astronomical cravings, at least until the next new moon.
While I scanned the early evening skies for Mercury, Terry stayed at home, installing a secondary finder scope on my telescope. I bought the red LED finder scope months ago because the original finder scope attached to my ETX-90 becomes unusable at near vertical viewing orientations. Only the larger ETX-105 and ETX-125 came with a right-angle view finder.
Now all I needed to do was dial it in. And I had at least two (if not three) easily seen objects to do it with. I took the telescope out on the lower patio and set it up. I opted to do an easy align this time with the Autostar handheld device and thankfully it picked Sirius as the first star to align upon. Sirius was the first non-planet object I saw after sunset earlier in the evening during my hunt for Mercury. After Jupiter, I saw Sirius appear about thirty minutes after sunset. The Dog Star was clearly visible through the bare branches of my mulberry tree and the Autostar got within five degrees of it on the first try. So, I at least had oriented the telescope to it’s home position on it’s mount correctly this time.
The second star for the easy alignment was Pollux, the twin to Castor in the constellation Gemini. Since my house is over two stories tall and I had setup the telescope ten feet west of the tallest part of it, seeing the constellation Gemini was quite a challenge. The two brightest stars (Castor and Pollux) had just peaked over the roof. Then I had a moment of panic. Which one of the two is Pollux? I knew Castor was brighter (because it’s actually a binary or double-star that I hope to one day see separately) so I zeroed in on the less bright star. The Autostar reported a successful alignment. Incidentally, Castor is the ‘star of the week’ over at Earthsky.
To test how successful the alignment might or might not be, I told the Autostar to go find Venus. Since I could clearly see Venus shining brightly next to the Moon, I knew I would be able to further tune the alignment of the telescope and the new finder scope using it as a guide star. The Autostar again got the telescope within five degrees (or less) of Venus so I proceeded to update the red LED finder scope’s focus. I had been so focused on my finder scopes that when I put my eye to the telescope’s eyepiece I realized I hadn’t even gotten one out of the case yet! I grabbed a 26mm eyepiece and quickly focused on Venus, but it was so bright I couldn’t get a crisp clean focus. I at least centered it in the telescope’s field of view and let the Autostar slew for a few minutes. Venus kept creeping slowly out of the center (nothing new but something I need to look into). Next stop, Jupiter.
Again, the Autostar got close, but not quite. I’m beginning to think I need to recalibrate and retrain the drives in the ETX-90 mount. Jupiter in all it’s glory with four moons visible (two on either side). I grabbed Terry out of the band room to take a quick look, but he retreated back inside because of the cold. I hardly noticed it, having stood outside during sunset for over and hour and now observing from the backyard in just a t-shirt and jeans (the house provided a substantial windbreak).
At this point, I was happy with the installation, configuration and usefulness of the new red LED finder scope. What could I attempt observing before packing up everything and returning it to the band room? Ah! Something in Orion. Thankfully, Orion appeared high in the sky, almost due south (just a bit to the east). Since I suffer from an extreme light pollution epidemic in Lansing, the higher up an object, the better to minimize the amount of light and atmosphere I need to peer through. Having a clear cold night to make the air dense also helps. I searched the Autostar’s object database and found the Great Orion Nebula. Fetch! I said and off the telescope went.
The telescope stopped in the general vicinity of the belt of Orion. I didn’t think that was the exact location of the Orion Nebula, so I grabbed my Sky & Telescope Pocket Star Atlas and confirmed the location as being in the sword, not the belt. Using both finder scopes, I slowly got the telescope oriented on the objects in the sword. Using the eyepiece, I slowly scanned the much smaller field of view and saw a grey cloud like smudge pass by. I stopped. I returned to the smudge. This must be it! I put in a stronger magnification eyepiece and spent several minutes taking in the sights of a nebula. Only long exposures with very sensitive camera equipment equatorially mounted … or the Hubble Space Telescope in orbit (outside of our dirty atmosphere) … can produce stunning color images like this one:
I hope it was the Orion Nebula. I am almost convinced it was, but since my telescope is a reflector (not a refractor), the image I view in the eyepiece is not only upside down, but reversed right to left, and almost always black-and-white (or gray). When I compare what I see to a star atlas, I have to do mental spatial gymnastics on the fly. I did get Terry to come out one more time and view the smudge that was a nebula before packing up the telescope and putting astronomy to bed for the night.
I woke up before sunrise this morning (no surprise … I always do that with or without an alarm). I fed the dogs and when I let them out the back patio door, I noticed to bright objects in the western sky. They both had to be Saturn and Mars. I went to Terry’s computer and logged in to my Astronomy.com account (since I subscribe to the electronic edition of Astronomy on my Nook Color, I get ‘extras’ on their website). Using their StarDomePlus Java application, I confirmed the contents of the sky at that exact moment from my location in Lansing. Yes! Mars was the bright spot in the western sky and Saturn appeared just up and to the southwest of it. If only I had gotten up an hour or so earlier, I could have set up the telescope (again) and looked at Mars and Saturn both. I think I just found my next astronomical hunting expedition.
I couldn’t sleep. Not surprisingly, insomnia occurs more frequently as I age. Sometimes, an external force interferes with my snoozing, but I refuse to point fingers.
Laying in bed, staring at the vaulted ceiling in my bedroom, I wished I could wave a hand and temporarily retract the roof. Then I’d be mostly above the treeline and able to setup the telescope for more comfortable viewing.
Sighing, I slipped on my clothes at 3:30 a.m. and retreated downstairs to the vaulted great room, grabbed the telescope I left mounted to the tripod there and took it outside. I quickly realigned it roughly on Polaris and waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. I surveyed the northern sky, quickly found Cassiopeia and Perseus, but the light pollution from the Lansing Correctional Facility and the tall trees in my northern neighbor’s yard didn’t help find Comet Hartley 2. I think a field trip to Perry Lake may be in order for this weekend.
Turning to the southeast, I quickly spied Orion directly over my chimney. I aimed the telescope at Orion’s belt and may have seen a monochromatic glimpse of the Orion Nebula in his sword. Both Orion’s belt and sword contain many nebulae, but I need a darker sky to view them properly. I survey Rigel (beta Orion – brightest star in Orion (left foot) and sixth brightest in the night sky); Betelgeuse (alpha Orion – 2nd brightest star in Orion (right shoulder) and 12th brightest in the night sky); and, Bellatrix (aka ‘the Amazon star’ (left shoulder).
If you draw a line through Orion’s belt, it points to two of the brightest stars in the sky: Sirius (aka ‘the Dog star’ – the brightest star bar none and only 8.6 light years away) and Aldebaran (alpha Taurus and the 13th brightest star).
I turned the telescope to the west, where I found Jupiter peaking through the branches of one of my pine trees. Yep, it was still there and still had moons, although one of the four I observed earlier was hidden behind Jupiter.
I forgot my sweater so after about thirty minutes I brought the telescope back in and should probably retreat back to my quiet dark bedroom. Nah … my alarm goes off in two minutes (it’s now 4:58 a.m.)